Tennessee Community Grapples With Possible Toxic Sludge

Residents and officials worry about environmental effects from coal ash slide.

ByABC News
December 26, 2008, 5:55 PM

Dec. 26, 2008— -- It looks like the surface of the moon. The black sludge that poured out of a Tennessee coal burning plant now covers entire neighborhoods.

"It's just scary," said Chris Copeland, a resident of Harriman, Tenn. "I have two young girls, and I'm afraid for their health."

Like dozens of families in the area, the Copelands watched as their home was submerged in a wave of sludge -- the waste product created when coal is burned for electricity.

An enormous amount of coal ash residue -- the sludge -- spread across entire communities in the area this week after a massive wall around a retention pond near a coal plant gave way.

The irony is that the sludge that soiled this area was part of an effort to make burning coal more environmentally friendly.

The worry now among environmentalists and homeowners is over what is in the sludge and whether it contains mercury and arsenic that could potentially contaminate the water supply and dry into harmful dust particles in the air.

"This stuff is a witch's brew of toxic heavy metals that needs to be contained and controlled," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The ash has spilled into a river that feeds a waterway that supplies drinking water to millions of people. Representatives from the company that owns the coal plant insisted today there is nothing to worry about.

"The water is safe," said Amanda Ray of the Tennessee Valley Authority. "The environment is safe. And we're going to clean this up."